Northern Ireland internationals Michael Smith and Conor Washington netted in front of national boss Michael O’Neill as Hearts knocked Motherwell out of the Betfred Cup.
The pair both struck in the midst of a vicious downpour in the final five minutes of the first half of the second-round clash at Fir Park.
Half-time substitute Christopher Long pulled one back on the hour mark but Hearts – who missed an early penalty – held on for a 2-1 win without much drama.
The Hearts goalscorers picked the perfect time to net. Smith had not scored since last year’s Betfred Cup group stages while Washington struck from the spot to end an 18-month domestic drought going back to his QPR days and throughout a season at Sheffield United, although the striker scored for his country in June.
While O’Neill would have been encouraged by his players’ goals, they were of far greater significance to their club manager.
Craig Levein had come under fire from a section of fans after Hearts drew two of their group games and took one point from the opening two Ladbrokes Premiership matches.
Levein took action this week by bringing in Manchester United goalkeeper Joel Pereira on loan and the 23-year-old came straight into the starting line-up for Zdenek Zlamal.
Young players Aaron Hickey and Andrew Irving more than vindicated their recalls with Jake Mulraney also adding some verve as Uche Ikpeazu and the injured Steven Naismith dropped out.
Hearts’ first penalty came in the eighth minute after referee Bobby Madden penalised Charles Dunne when the ball bounced up and hit his hand as the defender challenged with Washington. Clare hit the post before giving away an indirect free-kick when he touched the rebound.
Pereira had a let-off when he spilled Jermain Hylton’s weak effort but Hickey cleared off the line after Sherwin Seedorf attempted to force home.
The visitors were looking more dangerous and Dunne stopped a counter-attack by racing back to foil the dangerous Jamie Walker, who soon went off injured.
Hearts were ahead a minute later. Washington brought down a halfway-line throw, possibly with the help of a hand, and switched play to Smith, who was not tracked by Hylton. The right-back ran to the edge of the box, turned inside Richard Tait and curled a left-footed effort into the far corner.
Pereira held Liam Donnelly’s powerful long-range strike before Hearts doubled their lead in stoppage-time. Mark Gillespie came well off his line as Mulraney chased Smith’s ball down the channel and took out the winger on the soaked surface after the Hearts man got a touch. Washington sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.
There was little sign of a comeback before Long scored. The striker initially won the ball in the centre circle before slotting underneath the goalkeeper after an impressive assist from Liam Polworth.
Motherwell could not build momentum though and the closest they came to forcing extra-time was when Washington turned Polworth’s cross towards his own goal with Pereira showing good reactions to turn wide.
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